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The Abstinence Teacher: A Novelby Tom Perrotta
Synopses & Reviews
Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It's got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It's the kind of place where parents are involved in their children's lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.
Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth's younger daughter's soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn't approve of Ruth's style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn't applaud The Tabernacle's mission to take its message outside its doors. Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value.
The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people. Elegantly written, it is characterized by the distinctive mix of satire and compassion that have animated Perrotta's previous novels.
"'Signature Reviewed by Jennifer Gilmore Tom Perrotta knows his suburbia, and in The Abstinence Teacher he carves out an even larger chunk of his distinct terrain. Set in the northeastern suburb of Stonewood Heights, Perrotta's sixth book takes on the war between the liberals and the evangelists. When single mother Ruth Ramsay, the sex ed teacher at the local high school, tells her class that oral sex can be enjoyable, the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth church begins its crusade. Believable or not, the school agrees to an abstinence curriculum and in marches JoAnn Marlowe with her blonde hair and pumps to instill in Ruth the tenets of the new program. Gone are the days of rolling a condom over a cucumber; now Ruth is required to promote restraint, which she does wearily and halfheartedly. These are heady days, when students rat out their teachers and the local soccer coach — Ruth's daughter is on his team — is a divorced ex-druggie and active Tabernacle member. When Tim leads the team in prayer, Ruth wrenches her daughter from the circle and the hostility between the opposing camps grows. Who is bad and who is good? Ruth's youthful promiscuity rises slowly to the surface, while Tim's struggle to stay sober makes him constantly confront his past. He's lost his wife and daughter — also on the soccer team — to his addictions, but now he's clean and married to a Tabernacle girl. His Jesus-loving ways, however, are in direct conflict with his desires, rendering him the most complex and likable character. When he loses his own battle with abstinence at a poker party, the finest scene in the novel culminates with his keying 'Jesus' across the hood of an SUV parked in the drive. Ruth would gladly have sex if it would only come her way, and she also drinks on school nights. A less well-drawn complement to Tim, Ruth is a tolerant liberal with a newly toned body who plays therapist to her gay friends, but who can't accept that her children are interested in Jesus.The lesson is that everybody must give up something. Even Ruth's ex-lover, once a pudgy trumpet player, no longer eats to maintain his abs of steel. So what is lost when we cannot succumb to our desires? Who then do we become? The book is rife with Perrotta's subtle and satiric humor (the Tabernacle is seen as a place of diversity, while the punks, Deadheads and headbangers of Tim's past are all predictably the same), but these questions get lost as the plot winds down. Issues of sex and religion that have shaken the town become, in the end, the story of what Ruth and Tim's newly forged relationship will soon become. Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the novel Golden Country, which will be out in paperback in September. ' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Tom Perrotta's new novel sounds like something to get all hot and bothered about. The chemistry is perfect for this master of suburban satire: fundamentalist Christians gettin' down with liberal sex ed. With a hookup like this, there should be fireworks, but for some reason 'The Abstinence Teacher' suffers from a kind of literary erectile dysfunction (LED). It's nothing to worry about, I suppose;... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) these things happen to novels now and then, but for those of us still fantasizing about the hilarity of 'Election' or the scathing wit of 'Little Children,' it's pretty frustrating. The title character is Ruth Ramsey, an experienced sex ed teacher in Stonewood Heights, one of those well-to-do Northeastern suburbs that Perrotta knows so well. A divorced mother of two girls, Ruth approaches her 'Health & Family Life' course with 'unflappable, matter-of-fact candor.' Convinced that 'Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power, she saw it as her mission to demystify sex.' But the previous spring, Ruth sparked a nasty community backlash when she took advantage of 'a teachable moment' and told her students, 'From what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it.' In the media storm that comment aroused, Ruth found herself subjected to a lawsuit, denounced by preachers across the country and dubbed the 'Oral Sex Lady.' Not only was she forced to issue a public apology, but the school board adopted a new abstinence curriculum designed by Christian fundamentalists and supervised by a super-sexy but ferociously judgmental 'Virginity Consultant.' The sharpest moment in the novel comes early — not a good sign. In an all-school assembly, this Virginity Consultant delivers a lecture that mixes 'shameless fear-mongering' with erotically charged descriptions of her upcoming honeymoon (complete with photos of her hunky but patient boyfriend). So powerful is this presentation that even Ruth falls under its spell for a moment, 'wondering how she'd ever been so weak as to let herself be duped into thinking it might be pleasant or even necessary to allow herself to be touched or loved by another human being.' Perrotta knows just how to zero in on the priggish absolutism of the abstinence movement. We're on Ruth's side faster than she can unroll a latex condom. Forced to teach this puritanical new curriculum in her classroom and enduring a long spot of involuntary abstinence at home, Ruth suffers through a lonely, aggravating fall term. It's a perfect setup for the conflict in the next scene when Ruth catches her daughter's soccer coach, Tim Mason, praying with the girls after a game. For a beleaguered liberal who's paranoid that fundamentalists are 'running the country,' this is the last straw. Charging toward the prayer circle, 'Ruth was startled by the surge of anger that coursed through her body,' Perrotta writes. 'It was as if everything she'd swallowed over the past six months — the abuse, the insults, the humiliation — had gathered into a fiery ball that was rising up from her belly, into her throat.' But almost immediately afterward, 'The Abstinence Teacher' becomes flaccid. The novel's focus shifts over to Tim, who's coaching the girls soccer team as a way of staying in touch with his daughter. He's a reformed alcoholic and drug addict who's putting his life back in order with the help of the Tabernacle Church. Most of the story concerns his efforts to be a good Christian, to love his pliant new wife and to resist the substances that almost killed him. Perrotta portrays all this with deep sympathy and insight, though not very much verve, a problem that's compounded by the fact that much of the novel takes place in the past, constantly filling in how we got to where we are now. But where we are now — the conflict between Tim and Ruth over the soccer game prayer — is a rather tiny controversy on which to hang a story, particularly since Tim quickly apologizes and promises never to do it again. Fundamentalist Christians are usually sitting ducks in satire, but Perrotta goes out of his way to portray the Tabernacle Church with a gentle hand. Even Pastor Dennis comes off fairly well. Although he's strict and severe, politically and socially conservative, he's sincerely concerned about his flock, and the novel stays admirably far from any of the usual, worn-out slurs: Rev. Dennis isn't siphoning funds from the church coffers or seducing choir boys. Yes, there's some comedy here — if you haven't been to a modern evangelical church, it can all seem a bit glad-handed and slogany: 'Who hates sin? WE DO!' — but much of this isn't any more forceful than Garrison Keillor on the Lutherans in Lake Wobegon. 'The Abstinence Teacher' is certainly Perrotta's most sensitive novel. His portrayal of Tim — a good man struggling to find a moral code amid a thicket of temptations and extremists — is tender, witty and wise, but the novel lacks the necessary element of passion. It practices a strange kind of abstinence: a failure to consummate its satiric drive. Regardless of what we tell the kids, that's not a safe way for a good book to behave. Ron Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[S]hrewd yet compassionate....Ruefully humorous and tenderly understanding of human folly: the most mature, accomplished work yet from this deservedly bestselling author." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Perrotta deals with these timely issues by having characters from the different camps forced to confront one another. What results from these civilized exchanges, which feel so human in their complexity and confusion, is a more personal, inside view of how such tensions play out. Recommended." Library Journal
"Perotta focuses on the small, personal motives behind life's big shake-ups. A finely wrought novel that will be in demand." Booklist
"[A] genial new suburban satire....[Perrotta] resists giving firm answers to the thorny moral questions lurking in his material — which is a relief. (Grade: B+)" Entertainment Weekly
"As formulaic as this plot might sound, Mr. Perrotta uses it not to construct a conventional screwball romance but to create a sad-funny-touching story that looks at the frustrations and perils of life in suburbia through darkly tinted, not rose-colored glasses..." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Perrotta's topical novel illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern family life, and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.
The rich new novel by the bestselling author of Little Children, Joe College, and Election.
The rich new novel by the bestselling author of Little Children, Joe College, and Election
"A whip-smart first novel that gripped me with its wry humor and wonderfully real characters" (Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife), and the story of a stay-at-home dad who's holding his life together by a thread
When your compass is taken away, how do you navigate? Stay-at-home dad Logan Pyle is holding his life together by a thread: his larger-than-life father, Gus, has just died, his wife is distant, and his kindergarten-age son has regressed to drinking from a baby bottle and sucking his thumb. Complicating matters further is Bennie, Guss beautiful young widow, with whom Logan has a troubled past. When the thread finally snaps, Logans actions threaten to tear the family he treasures apart. Carried by Logans wry, original voice, this moving debut follows one mans journey from child to parent.
Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise children, but amid its good schools and healthy real estate market, a small-town culture war is brewing. The Abstinence Teacher focuses on two divorced parents who become adversaries in the mess: Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school who believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Her younger daughter's soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Ruth and Tim instinctively distrust one another, but when a controversy on the playing field forces the two of them to actually talk to each other, an uneasy friendship begins to develop. Elegantly written and with Perrotta's distinctive mix of satire and compassion, The Abstinence Teacher illuminates the powerful emotions that run beneath the placid surface of modern American family life, and explores the complicated spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.
About the Author
Tom Perrotta is the author of five previous work of fiction: Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Election, and the New York Times bestselling Joe College and Little Children. Election was made into the acclaimed 1999 movie directed by Alexander Payne and starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. Little Children was released as a movie directed by Todd Field and starring Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly in 2006, and for which Perrotta received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best screenplay. He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
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